Search this website
| Options Options
Search Type
Reducing harm when working with organic solvents: For employers
Document Actions

Reducing harm when working with organic solvents: For employers

For every person who dies in New Zealand of a work-related accident, 10 people die from a work-related disease.

This fact sheet provides advice for employers on how to reduce the exposure of workers to organic solvents in the workplace. Organic solvents are substances that are used to dissolve or disperse other substances eg toluene, thinners and MEK. Exposure to solvents can make workers ill.


What products can contain organic solvents?

Organic solvents are used in many construction and manufacturing workplaces. Organic solvents may be found in a wide range of products including:

  • adhesives
  • degreasing agents
  • fillers
  • general cleaning products
  • lacquers
  • metal cleaners
  • ink
  • paint, paint removers and paint thinners
  • resins
  • rust removers
  • surface preparation products
  • dry cleaning products
  • fuels.


Odour is not a reliable indicator of thepresence of a solvent – you can’t smell someof them until levels are already too high, and in some cases, prolonged exposure reducesa person’s ability to smell the solvent.


How can organic solvents enter the body?

Organic solvents enter the body in three ways:

  • solvent vapour can be inhaled and absorbed through the lungs (and into the blood)
  • solvents can be absorbed through direct skin contact (eg by washing hands in solvents)
  • solvents can be swallowed, resulting in acute poisoning.


How can organic solvents affect health?

Short term exposure may affect worker health over minutes, hours or days. Long term exposure may affect health over weeks, months, or years.

Short term effects Long term effects
  • headaches
  • nausea
  • eyes, nose, throat and skin irritation
  • disorientation
  • drunk/high feelings
  • drowsiness
  • mood changes
  • memory problems
  • concentration difficulties
  • tiredness
  • weakness


Short term effects usually disappear when work with the organic solvent stops; however, long term effects may not disappear so readily. The brain is most likely to be affected by long term exposures.


Identify the health risks

To identify what harm to health the organic solvent used could cause:

  • read the container label
  • get the solvent’s safety data sheet (SDS) from the supplier. This document will tell you what the health risks are, how to store and handle the solvent safely, and what to do in case of a spillage or emergency.


Control measures to reduce exposure to organic solvents

All practicable steps must be taken to prevent exposure to organic solvents.

If the use of organic solvents can’t be eliminated, try to isolate workers from the hazardous work activity. If you can’t do this, solvent exposure should be minimised by:

  • putting in place physical control measures (eg using local exhaust ventilation or improving general ventilation) designed to minimise solvent exposure
  • using safe methods of work, processes or procedures designed to minimise solvent exposure
  • using personal protective equipment (PPE) to minimise exposure (PPE should be used when the other control measures alone won’t adequately minimise solvent exposure).

Table 1 outlines control measures that can be used to reduce organic solvent exposure.

Here are some common ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ when working with organic solvents.

[image] showing the correct way to wash your hands.

Wash hands with hand cleaner not solvent


[image] Showing the best way to handle solvents.

Use gloves and tools to avoid skin contact


[image] showing the use of a long handled brush.

Use long-handled tools


[image] Fshowing the use of a long handled roller.

Keep a safe distance from solvents


For their part, workers must take all practicable steps to ensure their own health and safety at work including using suitable PPE. They must also ensure that no one else is harmed by anything they do or don’t do while at work.


Health monitoring of workers

If you can’t eliminate solvent use or isolate workers from a hazardous work activity, you must monitor worker health.

Health monitoring involves monitoring workers to identify changes in their health due to exposure to certain substances. This involves workers undergoing medical examinations performed by qualified medical personnel with the consent of the worker. For solvent exposure, this includes workers completing in a solvent health questionnaire and being checked for dermatitis by a competent person.


Where can you get further information?

Workplace exposure standards (WESs) exist for most common solvents. A WES is the airborne level of solvent below which it is believed that most workers will be protected from discomfort or ill-health.

Contact an experienced occupational health professional for advice about reducing or measuring solvent exposure or health monitoring. You can go to the WorkSafe New Zealand website for further guidance on WESs or on using local exhaust ventilation systems or respiratory protective equipment.


Table 1: Control measures to reduce exposure to organic solvents

  Action How can you do this? Examples of the control measures that could be used or further information
Most effective Eliminate the risk eg substitute the product or work process Don’t use solvents or use a less hazardous product
  • use a water-based product, instead a solvent-based product.
  • If you can’t eliminate, try to isolate workers as described below.
  Isolate workers from the risk Isolate workers from the hazardous work activity by changing application methods or when hazardous activities are carried out
  • Apply adhesive or paint using a brush or roller, instead of a spray method.
  • use long-handled rollers and tools.
  • Carry out high exposure activities during breaks or after normal working hours when others are not around.
  • If you can’t isolate, you must minimise worker exposure as described below.
  Use engineering controls to minimise exposure Put in place physical control measures
  • For a manufacturing or repair process, use a local exhaust ventilation (LEV) system that is designed, installed, inspected, tested and maintained by a competent person. Workers need to know how to check that the LEV system is operating correctly.
  • In other settings, ensure the area is well-ventilated to avoid solvent vapour build-up.
  Use administrative controls to minimise exposure Use safe methods of work, processes or procedures designed to minimise risk
  • Ensure all containers are labelled.
  • Ensure all containers are well sealed when not in use.
  • Cover tins containing brushes/stirring sticks with, for example, aluminium foil.
  • Ensure all spills are cleaned up immediately. There should be a spill kit available and staff trained how to use it.
  • Dispose of solvent-soaked rags in a metal bin, with a close fitting metal lid.
  • Do not wash hands and arms with solvent; use a suitable hand cleaner.
  • Restrict access to only those workers required to complete the work.
  • Provide workers with information, instruction or training on the health risks and how to implement control measures in a way they can understand (eg by providing safety cards that summarise the important health and safety information), or supervise them.
Least effective Wear personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect workers eg respiratory protective equipment (RPE) Use safety equipment to protect against harm
  • PPE should only be used when other control measures can’t adequately protect workers
  • Look at the solvent’s SDS or glove manufacturers’ websites for advice on what type of gloves to use.
  • Workers need to be trained on how to use, clean, maintain and store correctly PPE.
  • RPE needs to be suitable for purpose (the right respirator and cartridge for the solvent must be used).
  • RPE needs to be facial fit tested to each worker (it’s not to be shared).
  • For lower level exposures, a respirator fitted with an activated carbon cartridge suitable for use with organic solvents is necessary.
  • For advice about RPE see Australian/New Zealand Standard (AS/NZS) 1715 Selection, use and maintenance of respiratory protective equipment and AS/NZS 1716 Respiratory protective devices.
  • Warning: for work in confined spaces.
  • uncontrolled entry to confined spaces has resulted in fatalities, where workers were quickly overcome by high levels of solvent vapours or gases, or an oxygen- deficient atmosphere.
  • Cartridge respirators are not suitable for work in confined spaces. Specialist advice is required for respiratory protection in confined spaces (see AS 2865 Confined spaces).


Note: Many organic solvents are also flammable. However the vapour levels that can cause fires are much greater than the levels that make people ill. So if you are only reducing vapour levels to manage the fire risk, you are probably not managing the health risk.


Published: August 2015. Current until review in 2017

Last updated 22 July 2016


On Monday 4 April 2016, the New Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA) came into effect.

HSWA repeals the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992, with immediate effect.

All references to the 1992 Act on this website and within our guidance will be progressively removed.